The news that Marie Osmond’s son, Michael Blosil, has “committed suicide,” is unsettling, as such stories always are. What I find particularly sad about a person dying in that way is the loneliness that seems to be a necessary part of the context. I don’t even like the term “committed suicide,” because it evokes the notion that the person involved was ipso facto guilty of wrongdoing, whereas he or she was most likely making a solitary decision to end the torment of fear or confusion or sadness, or perhaps an indefinable feeling that made life unbearable.
I am shaken whenever I hear of someone taking his or her own life, and I had plenty of opportunities to be shaken in that way in more than 40 years of newspaper reporting. My mind almost involuntarily imagines the path that led that person from the potential with which most of us are born to the mental illness or physical ailment or poor choices or bad luck or combination of factors that made only death seem reasonable.
I went through that exercise when I heard of the death of the actress Brenda Benet in 1982. About a decade before, I had interviewed Brenda and her husband at the time, Bill Bixby. I was struck by how animated they were and especially how charged up they were about their lives together. They both talked at once, and he paced back and forth so vigorously that a couple of times he paced right out of the room and into the hallway. They had struck a balance, they told me, between the intimacy of their marriage and the independence of their separate careers, and they were almost defiant in proclaiming it — so much so, that I began my account of the meeting by writing, “You don’t interview Bill Bixby and Brenda Benet so much as you defend yourself.”
They had a child in 1974 and were divorced in 1980, and the child – a boy – fell suddenly ill and died in 1981. Brenda ended her own life in 1982. How alone she must have felt with her grief.
News of suicide also reminds me of Willard Hershberger, who died by his own hand — when he was 30 years old — two years and a month before I was born. I know of him because he belongs to a class of men who never die to memory — major league baseball players.
Hershberger, whose home town had the comforting name of Lemon Cove, California, had a distinction that he shared with only a few dozen others; he played for the 1937 Newark Bears. The Bears — who had no connection to the present team of that name — were a Yankees farm club and are reputed in baseball lore to have been the greatest minor league team ever. Their record that year was 109-43, and they finished 25 1/2 games ahead of Montreal. The lineup included Joe Gordon, Babe Dahlgren, George McQuinn, and Charlie “King Kong” Keller.
It must have been an exciting experience for Hershberger, a catcher, who appeared in 96 games that season and batted .325 on a team that collectively batted .299 for the season. He was already 27 years old when he made his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1938. He was the backup to Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi. During the 1940 season — with the Reds in contention for the National League pennant — Hershberger was standing in for Lombardi when the team lost games on July 31 and August 2. Hershberger picked up a buzz among the players that they would not have lost if Lombardi had been in the lineup. Hershberger was distraught, and he expressed himself to manager Bill McKechnie.
Hershberger evidently told McKechnie that he felt responsible for the losses, mentioned that his father had taken his own life about a ten years before, and intimated that he might make the same decision. This was a private conversation, but accounts say that the manager thought he had calmed the young man. But Hershberger didn’t appear before the next day’s game, and he was found dead in his hotel room.
He was a member of a team, but in the end he felt that failure was his alone. Linda Loman could have been speaking of Hershberger when she said of her husband: “Attention, attention must be paid to such a person,” and I’m sure McKechnie second-guessed himself every day after Hershberger died. But I have had the experience of trying to help such a person and found, in the end, that the loneliness can be intractable, insistent, and that’s the most frustrating and the saddest thing about it.
February 27, 2010
So Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” opened in London, and Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail says it’s long on visuals and short on story. Tookey’s take — get it? — is that Linda Wooverton diluted the project with her attempt to write a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books instead of re-telling the original stories — or, at least, one of them. So everybody — including Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen — looks great, but has nowhere to go.
“The story becomes a very different beast from the ones Lewis Carroll created,” Tookey writes. “It’s a tale of feminist empowerment, with an entrepreneurial, pro-capitalist ending that is unlikely to endear it to readers of the Guardian.” In other words, it’s a 3-D version of the health-care summit.
According to Tookey’s account, a central issue in this tale is that the Red Queen has enlisted the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch as enforcers in her reign of terror. In Carroll’s dream within a novel, of course, these were characters in a poem, not “real” creatures. Alice reads about them in a looking-glass book, which means a book in which the print is backwards so that one has to hold it up to a mirror in order to read it.
This poem, which Carroll meant as a parody of overblown poetry and pointless criticism, has been subject to so much serious study that it’s a shame Carroll didn’t live to see it. G.K. Chesterton remarked on this in 1932: “Poor, poor, little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others.”
“Jabberwocky,” incidentally, is a particular challenge to translators who want to make “Alice” available to the non-English-speaking world. There’s a French version that begins: Il brilque: les toves lubricilleux / Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave …. A German translation begins: Es Brillig war. Die schlichte Toven / Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben ….
Chris Tookey’s review of Tim Burton’s film is at THIS LINK.
The news that Chan Ho Park has signed to pitch for the Yankees got me to thinking about men from other countries who have played in the Bigs. Players from the Spanish-speaking Americas and from the Caribbean have been around the majors for a long time, but the signing of Park shows that there are still frontiers to be crossed: He is the first big-league player to have been born in South Korea — or in any Korea, for that matter.
The first player from outside the United States was probably Andy Leonard, who was a native of County Cavin, Ireland. Leonard broke in in 1876 as a second baseman and left fielder with the Boston Red Caps and appeared with that team until 1878. In 1880 he played shortstop and third base with the original Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Although Leonard was born on the Auld Sod, he was raised in Newark, N.J., and got some of his early playing experience with a club in Irvington. In ’76, when he broke into the majors, five other players from Ireland appeared with major league teams, along with five from England and one from Germany, which means that England and Ireland had more representatives in the big leagues than all but four states of the Union — New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Other than the United States, the Dominican Republic has contributed the most players to the Major Leagues — 494 through the 2009 season. Venezuela is second with 246 and Canada is third with 225. Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, has chipped in with 228.
Considering all the Italian-Americans who have played Major League baseball — not the least of whom were the three DiMaggio brothers — it’s curious to find that there have been only six players who were born in Italy. The first of these was Lou Polli, who was born in Baveno, which is up there in the Piedmont region. Polli pitched a few innings of relief for the St. Louis Browns in 1932 and didn’t appear again until 1944 — a war year in which a lot of guys who otherwise wouldn’t have been in baseball got a crack at it while the regulars were Over There. In ’44, Polli pitched almost 36 innings for the Giants.
The most successful Italian-born player was Reno Bertoia, who might as well have been a Canadian inasmuch as his family moved there when Reno was a year old. He was born in St. Vito al Tagliamento in the comune of Udine, which is near the border of Slovenia. He played in the big leagues from 1953 to 1962, the first six and last two of those years with the Tigers. He was an infielder — a second and third baseman — and he had a lifetime batting average of .244 over 612 games. After he retired from baseball, he was a Catholic-school teacher for 30 years in Windsor.
The Baseball Almanac has a lot of stats about foreign-born baseball players at THIS LINK.
February 21, 2010
I’m ready to talk baseball, not that I ever stop. The camps are up and running, Johnny Damon has signed with the Tigers, George Steinbrenner was out watching his grandson play in a high school game, and the Yankees are starting to say “Chamberlain” and “bullpen” in the same sentence with more and more consistency.
The more things stay the same, they more they stay the same, and Yogi Berra turned out for yet another spring training. It seems to me that there is a doctoral dissertation in Yogi Berra, maybe in American Studies. Some scholar should examine the history of Berra’s public image, which is more like Babe Ruth’s image than is immediately apparent. The man hasn’t been a day-to-day part of baseball for decades, and his name is still known to people who know nothing about the game, who weren’t yet born when Berra played his last game or, for that matter, managed his last game. He has ears like flapjacks and a hound-dog mug that now looks like a relief map of northern Greece. And we love him.
It is a little early for serious talk about the 2010 season, what with Joe Girardi saying things like this: “I think our No. 1 concern is ironing out our lineup. When I say it’s a concern, I’m not concerned that we don’t have the players to do it, I’m concerned with where you place them.” Uh, did he read that in one of Casey Stengel’s old notebooks?
In my search for some baseball intelligence, the most interesting thing I found today was about a game played in 1953. Several sites have picked up on this story, originally published in the New York Times. This is a hilarious account of Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle arguing about how the Yankees aborted an 18-game winning streak by losing a game to the St. Looie Browns. As the writer demonstrated, both players were sure of themselves and both had it very very wrong. It’s an object lesson for the rest of us when we’re cock sure of our memories. You can read it by clicking HERE.
February 19, 2010
I was working in the faculty room yesterday when one of the instructors asked the open air, “Does anyone know anything about Newtonian physics?” I told him his question was coincidental, because I had just finished reading a book about Isaac Newton, the 17th century physicist, mathematician, and natural philosopher.
I think I correctly answered my colleague’s question, which had to do with Newton’s Second Law of Motion: “A change in motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed.” But while the book I just read explained the achievements for which Newton is still regarded as one of the greatest of geniuses, its purpose is to recount the work of his later life, when he was warden of the Royal Mint — and particularly the relentless detective work with which he brought to justice Britain’s most brazen counterfeiter.
Newton did his signature scientific work at Trinity College in Cambridge, but he lobbied friends for many years to get him a political appointment in London. It finally came in the form of position at the mint, which made the silver coins that were Britain’s only hard currency at the time. When Newton arrived at his office in the Tower of London, the kingdom’s economy was on the verge of collapse, partly because of expensive military operations undertaken by William of Orange and partly because the royal currency was, in a word, disappearing. An old issue of coins was being degraded by so-called “clippers” who shaved bits of silver from the money to be melted down and sold. Meanwhile British silver was leaving the country altogether because it was worth more in exchange for gold in other countries than it was in exchange for commodities in England. The result was a bull market for counterfeiters, including the audacious and dangerous William Chaloner.
Newton’s predecessors as warden of the mint had not taken the job seriously except as a source of income, and that was expected of Newton, too. But he applied to the mint the same combination of energy and curiosity that had fueled his discoveries in fields like gravity and the behavior of light and his development of the mathematical system known as the calculus.
First, Newton took control of a program already underway when he arrived – the recall and replacement of all British coins then in circulation. This project was limping along when Newton took over, and he put the means in place to accelerate it and get the job done in a fraction of the projected time. Then he turned his attention to the counterfeiters, employing a network of spies and informers and counter-agents and double crossers to gather information and pounce on “coiners” – eventually including Chaloner, whose career as a counterfeiter had had its ups and downs.
Like most such scoundrels, Chaloner made his share of mistakes, and one of them was to publicly claim that the heart of the nation’s counterfeiting problem was in the mint itself, and imply that Newton’s incompetence was partly to blame. Don’t knock the Rock. Newton went after Chaloner with a vengeance, spending hundreds of hours personally interrogating people who could help build a case against the fraud. Chaloner had been in and out of prison several times and had dodged the noose that was reserved for counterfeiters, whom British law regarded as traitors. In Newton, he had met his match and – ultimately – his maker.
“Newton and the Counterfeiter,” both informative and entertaining, was written by Thomas Levenson, who is a professor of science writing at MIT.
A topic that Levenson discusses throughout this book – in fact, it’s an important thread that runs through all of Newton’s activities – is Newton’s search for contact with God. In fact, Levenson reports that religious matters became the preoccupation of Newton’s life when he had put most scientific inquiry behind him. I discussed that aspect of the book in a column in the Catholic Spirit, and it’s available at THIS LINK.
February 15, 2010
I turned on a TV yesterday morning — an unlikely thing for me to do — and wound up watching part of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on Turner Classic Movies. It was the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. It is one of at least 14 movie and television adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel “Notre Dame de Paris” — the formal name of the cathedral in Paris — and is generally accepted as the best of the lot. Among silent films, the 1923 version starring Lon Chaney was a benchmark achievement on several accounts — the sets recreating 15th century Paris, Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the deformed bell ringer, and the box office receipts of more than $3 million, Universal’s highest gross in the silent era.
I was pretty young when I first read Hugo’s novel, which is always marketed under the misleading title used on most of the films — misleading in that while Quasimodo might, ironically, be the most attractive figure in the story, he is not more important to the story than Esmeralda or Claude Frollo. Although the story has been retold 14 times on film TV, none of the re-tellings are entirely true to the original. Writers and directors have departed in many ways from Hugo’s plot and characters.
It is central to the tragedy of Hugo’s story that Esmeralda is executed and Quasimodo vanishes after her death, and Hugo leads his readers to believe that the bell ringer died in his grief, embracing Esmeralda’s body in a cemetery for social castoffs. In the Laughton version both characters are alive at the end of the film; in the Chaney version Quasimodo dies, but Esmeralda lives. These are not details; they are significant deviations from Hugo’s intent.
Among the other actors who have played Quasimodo are men as different as Anthony Quinn, Anthony Hopkins, and Mandy Patinkin — the latter in a TNT cable production in 1997. Quinn was paired with Sophia Loren in a 1956 French production in which he and Loren were the only actors who spoke English. The rest of the dialogue had to be dubbed over the French.
That was the first color film based on the novel. Whereas Patinkin tried to duplicate as closely as possible Laughton’s image of Quasimodo, Quinn’s makeup was mild, not coming close to the grotesque features that Hugo describes and that constitute the context for the bell ringer’s place in — or, rather, outside of — society. In that version, Esmeralda is killed accidentally which, of course, dilutes the injustice inherent in the story. But who would want to execute Sophia Loren?
There have also been a couple of attempts to stray so far from Hugo’s work as to turn Quasimodo into a huggable cutie — as in Walt Disney’s 1996 animated feature — or even a comic figure, as in the 1999 French romp, “Quasimodo d’El Paris.”
I hope that folks who have seen even the best of these films don’t think they’ve experienced what Victor Hugo created in his novel. On the other hand, who has the patience to read classical novels in the Twitter age?
Incidentally, the bell ringer was named Quasimodo because, as an infant, he was abandoned at the cathedral by his mother and found on Quasimodo Sunday — the first Sunday after Easter. The Introit of the Mass for that day is taken from the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. That passage is often translated, As newborn infants do, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good.
I have read what I consider to be a spurious explanation that Quasimodo’s name was a play on words — an idea that depends on translating quasi modo to mean “partly made” — meaning that Quasimodo was born incomplete. I can’t find my Cassell’s Latin Dictionary right now, but if memory serves me right, the literal translation of the first two words of the passage is not “partly made” but “in a similar way.”
February 13, 2010
I have become a voyeur.
Many men reach this stage at a younger and more virile age, but I was waiting for better technology. It has come with the marriage of the Internet and the live streaming web camera. Here’s fair warning: You can run, but you can’t hide.
I’m developing an addiction for the streaming web cam. I’ve spent far too much time searching for the better and better live images from all over the world. I don’t know what the attraction is; television has been broadcasting live images from around the planet for more than 50 years. But on television, we get what we are given. On the Internet, we increasingly are gaining the power to peek in wherever we choose, usually without the knowledge — and I guess this is the key — of those we are watching. We can watch them in real time, and they don’t know we’re here.
One of the most attractive scenes, of course is Times Square, which is alive at any hour of the day or night. The camera is mounted high above Broadway across the street from the Marriott Marquis. The sound feed is dominated by traffic noise frequently including screaming sirens, but the mike also picks up the voices of the stream of humanity that is always passing by the camera.
The TimesSquare Cam provides a larger image than many webcam sites do, so there are more details to examine. You can look in on Times Square at THIS LINK.
Some of the live images available don’t hold my attention for very long. Earthcam.com, for example, has a feed from a live camera in Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s a long shot of a skyline and traffic moving on a highway – there are no people visible.
Hotels around the world have taken to using live webcams to pump up their web sites. The Atlante Star in Rome is one of them; its camera shows about a half-dozen live images of scenes that can be seen from the hotel, including the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the traffic and pedestrians moving along the Via Vitelleschi far below the lens. This site, which is more interesting when it’s daylight in Rome, is located HERE.
I have also been misspending my declining years by watching two sea otters, Milo and Tanu, who live in the Vancouver Aquarium. Milo, the male, was born in an aquarium in Lisbon, Portugal, and Tanu, a female, was born in the wild, so to speak, in the ocean off Alaska. I spy on these otters at THIS LINK, which has a camera trained on their pool.
This site requires a little patience, because the otters are not always in camera range. When they are, though, they are very lively. The site includes interesting explanations of the behavior the otters exhibit onthe screen, which is a small image but has decent resolution.
I have found the streaming to be a little cranky on this site, and I have to frequently refresh the page to restart the video.
My favorite site for now is linked to a live camera mounted in a public square in Bydgoszczy, Poland, a city of about a third of a million people located up there just south of Gdansk. This camera pans the square, which includes rows of businesses and an outdoor ice skating rink.
This site — CLICK HERE — has become an addiction for me. I find the square itself and the activity within it attractive and absorbing. I watch the passers-by and speculate about who they are and where they are going. I marvel at the strollers who criss-cross the square regardless of the time. As I am writing this, it is 3 am in Poland, and there are people walking through that area and skating on that rink.
Another animal I visit on line is Lily, a black bear who at present is hibernating in her den in the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota. Lily caused a flurry on the Web a few weeks ago when she gave birth a cub — an event that was caught on the camera that is trained on her lair. Lily has since gone back to sleep. You can see her live — sort of — at THIS LINK. I check on her now and then to make sure she’s still breathing. Of course, it’s like watching paint dry, or grass grow, or metal rust, or …. well, like watching a bear sleep.
Many years ago, I wrote a story about a group of college students who were fans of the “Honeymooners” television series. These students hadn’t been born in the 1950s when the show had its initial run, but they couldn’t get enough of it. Although I do the same thing with “The Honeymooners” and some other vintage shows, I asked them why they watched the episodes so often that they could recite most of the dialog, and they told me that the way the writers and actors used language was one of the things that fascinated them.
Fast forward to “Seinfeld,” which still holds my interest partly because of the way the writers and actors used language — for instance, a particular device, very New York to my ear, used to evoke comparisons. This phraseology was used seven times in the series — five times by Jerry speaking to George or Elaine, once by Helen Seinfeld speaking to Jerry, her son, and once by George, speaking to Elaine.
The one instance in which Jerry wasn’t the speaker occurred in the series premiere, “The Stakeout,” in which Jerry tries to flirt with a woman he meets at a dinner party, annoying Elaine, who is, in effect, his date at the party. The next day, when Jerry’s visiting mother tells Jerry that Elaine called while he was out, he asks, “What was the tone of her voice? How did she sound?” To which Helen replies: “Who am I — Rich Little?”
In the episode known as “The Jacket,” Jerry makes a reference to composer Robert Schumann, but mispronounces the name, putting the accent on the first syllable. George says, “Artie Schumann, from Camp Hatchapee?” To which Jerry answers, “No, you idiot!” And George says, “Who are you — Bud Abbott? Why are you calling me an idiot?”
In “The Trip,” in which Jerry invites George to accompany him on a trip to Los Angeles, George arrives at Jerry’s apartment with a big pile of luggage. Jerry looks at the bags and says: “It’s a three-day trip. Who are you — Diana Ross?”
In “The Revenge,” George plans to get back at the boss who fired him from a real estate firm by slipping the boss a “mickey” at the firm’s anniversary party. When George reveals this plan, the incredulous Jerry says: “Who are you — Peter Lorre?”
In “The Wink,” Elaine tells Jerry that she has agreed to go on a date with the man who calls from her wake-up service. Jerry says: “I still can’t believe you’re going out on a blind date.” Elaine answers: “I’m not worried. It sounds like he’s really good-looking.” To which Jerry answers: “You’re going by sound? What are we — whales?”
And in “The Limo,” Jerry and George find themselves in a limousine with two neo-Nazis who think George is their leader. George suggests that they extricate themselves by jumping out of the moving car. “We’re doing sixty miles an hour!” Jerry says. “So we jump and roll,” George explains. “You won’t get hurt.” And Jerry replies: “Who are you — Mannix?”
Finally, in the episode in which NBC president Russell Dalrymple gets food poisoning after Elaine sneezes on his pasta primavera, George has a tumultuous session with his counselor, Dana, played by Gina Hecht. During the session, Dana tells George that she read the script for a sit-com pilot Jerry and George have pitched to NBC, and she was not impressed. When George repeats this to his friends, Elaine — who recommended Dana — says, “Maybe she didn’t think it was funny,” to which George replies, “Oh, she didn’t think it was funny? What is she – Rowan and Martin?”
Who are you? Who am I? A very “exerstential” question, as Elaine Benes observed.
For a list of actual people referred to in “Seinfeld” scripts, click on THIS LINK.
February 1, 2010
We watched a 1997 Danish film, “The Island on Bird Street,” which tells of an 11-year-old boy’s attempt to survive while the Nazis are emptying out a Jewish ghetto in Poland and sending its inhabitants to the death camps.
This film is based on what I have seen described as a “semi-autobiographical” novel by Israeli writer Uri Orlev, a Holocaust survivor who has specialized in children’s literature. Although the violence in this film is understated compared to many films about Nazi brutality, it’s not a film for young children. Teenagers wouldn’t flinch.
The story line is that the boy, Alex (Jordan Kiziuk), his father, Stefan (Patrick Bergin) and uncle Baroch (Jack Warden), are among the Polish Jews who are confined to a neighborhood fenced off by the Nazis — much like the Warsaw Ghetto where Orlev was confined as a child. When Stefan and Baroch are swept up in one of the Nazis’ “selections” for transport to a concentration camp, they conspire to let Alex escape the transport. Before the boy runs off, Stefan promises that he will return to the ghetto, and the boy takes that promise seriously.
Alex — who reads “Robinson Crusoe” and plays with his white mouse, Snow — manages through a combination of guile and luck to avoid detection while he dodges the German troops who are gradually emptying the ghetto. The boy encounters some other stragglers, including a few men who are involved in the Polish underground. He eventually begins to slip out of the ghetto into the city at large, but always returns to wait for his father.
Jordan Kiziuk, a British actor who won an Emmy in 1999, delivers a convincing performance as Alex. Most of the film is quite tense as Alex has one close call after another, and Kiziuk has a lot of the burden of sustaining it. In fact, he’s at the center of the drama to such a degree that the other players are largely accessories.
As credible as Kiziuk is in his role, the story itself strains credulity, especially given the persistence of the Nazis in tracking down every straggler in the ghetto. There is also a contradiction in his sometimes elaborate ingenuity and his naive faith that his father will somehow survive the brutality the boy has witnessed again and again. The film ends with Alex still in the ghetto, and a title reports simply that he “survived the war.” In actual fact, Orlev was eventually caught by the Nazis after he was left behind in the ghetto and was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he remained until it was liberated.
This film is visually very dramatic. The location in Poland presents a bleak image of the ghetto that provides an effective setting for the Nazis’ disregard for human dignity, never mind human life. The direction and photography contributed to the considerable attention and critical approval the film received when it was released.